Çini (like “china”) is a form of ceramic ware that emerged as a valuable art form in Ottoman Turkey during the late fifteenth century. Ranging from everyday tableware to elaborate tile revetment, çini comprises an earthenware body onto which polychrome decorative patterns are painted under a transparent glaze. Originally, çini was made exclusively for the Sultan and his courtiers, whose demands for luxury objects—inspired by imported Chinese porcelains—gave rise to imperial kilns that produced commensurate wares, namely in the city of Iznik.
Potters initially sought to emulate Jingdezhen porcelain by adapting the hallmark East Asian blue-and-white color scheme but by the mid-sixteenth century expanded their palettes to feature cobalt blues, greens, turquoises, and tomato reds. Standard çini decorations drew on the Islamic visual idioms of stylized arabesques, calligraphy, and vegetal designs alongside Chinese motifs, such as the wave-and-rock pattern.
Although Iznik was recognized in its time of activity for its output of the highest quality ceramic wares, the western Turkish city Kütahya produced comparable wares since the sixteenth century, despite receiving little attention. In fact, subsequent to the decline of ceramic production at Iznik workshops in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Kütahya emerged as the leading center for çini in the whole of Turkey, resisting decline despite periodic challenges since.
Today, hundreds of bustling ateliers and outlets line the streets of Kütahya, generating utilitarian vessels such as bowls, vases, ewers, and cups; panels of tiles for newly erected mosques; merchandise for gift shops and export; and fine çini distinguished as özel, or special, signed works. Özel dishes and tiles are prized for their impeccable workmanship, exuberance of color, and intricate surface designs.
The cityscape of Kütahya is itself a spectacle of çini. Revetted public fountains, civic buildings, railroad stations, and house fronts relaying prayers such as Besmele and Maşallah are generously gifted to the city by its most skilled potters. Hailed as masters, these virtuosos elevate modest objects to the ranks of sophisticated works of art that figure prominently into the social, economic, and religious life of Kütahya. A centuries-old, celebrated artistic tradition, çini lends visual and material form to the collective identity and heritage of the Kütahya people.
Making Çini: Process and Ingredients
While çini attempted to mimic Chinese porcelain in technique and appearance, the two wares were compositionally distinct from each other. Because Turkish potters did not have access to high-temperature kilns necessary to produce true porcelain, they opted for earthenware that they effectively wielded to approximate Chinese enamelware.
Mud or clay that constitutes the material form of çini combines six natural substances in varying proportions: a distinctive kaolin called dumbuldek that fires at a low temperature without cracking, quartz and sand that harden and strengthen the clay, chalk to achieve whitening and fasten elements, and two additional clays for plasticity. The resulting mixture is granulated and strained until it has reached the consistency of clay.
It is then thrown on the potter’s wheel where it acquires its final form as a vessel, plate, or tile, and is dried until all moisture is dispensed. Once cool, the body is coated with a white slip—siliceous clay thinned with water—and sent to the kiln for firing at a temperature ranging between 1,500 and 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. The low firing temperature is crucial because it enables the application of rich colors under the glaze. Decorations are painted onto the surface of the baked substance and then covered with a transparent lead glaze. The nearly complete work is fired once more to seal decorations into place.
Sharing in the overarching artistic customs of the Islamic world, çini employs calligraphic, geometric, and vegetal decorations. Because creed serves as a common thread weaving the works of potters, religious piety is inherent in the art form. Calligraphy, or beautiful writing, is therefore the most venerated form of ornament given its connection to the writing and copying of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. The most commonly cited Qur’anic verse found on Kütahya pottery is Bismillah, meaning, “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.”
Geometric designs likewise convey deference to God. Distinguished for their aniconic qualities, geometric patterns commonly feature star-like motifs: six-, eight-, or twelve-star tessellations comprising various polygons are combined, interlaced, repeated, and juxtaposed in complex, radially symmetrical arrangements. Their austere beauty and infinite variations reflect the all-encompassing will of God effecting universal order, harmony, and balance.
Vegetal motifs extend upon this deferential narrative, though in a way that is not immediately intelligible. Unlike the understood reference of vegetal motifs in Islamic art to the gardens of paradise, such patterns in Kütahya pottery are ascribed a geocentric meaning. Floral imagery, with its variety of fantastic blossoms, signifies the diversity of humankind while its asymmetrical composition mirrors the precariousness of worldly occurrences. However, the moral concept of the program intends to reveal, both visually and metaphorically, a sweeping balance and harmony that one can achieve in life by adhering to theological precepts the potters themselves deeply value.
Through the purposeful and distinctive application of traditional Islamic ornament, çini transcends the realm of mere aesthetic beauty to function in the service of Islam and its faithful followers for whom the art is an expression of communal pride, fealty, and fulfillment.